09 August 2013

Between two worlds, felt uncomfortable in both...

First, A little music...

I fall in a weird middle ground. On the one hand, I have spent, for the most part, my whole life, living a specific way. I was taught to value education to the highest, and to make sure to always put by best foot forward. I was also taught the way I should, as a Black Man, should interact with really anyone- that's to assume that everyone is watching every interaction, and will use anything they see me do as an excuse to hold all Blacks down. I, like all other Blacks, had to carry the burden of Our People, so we could, each in our own individual way, help fight the underlying belief of white supremacy that Blacks are just inferior to whites: not as smart, not as disciplined, not as "civilized" (a word my moms cringed when she said). This meant that I went through my life assuming that White People were The Enemy. And I lived in Northwest Minnesota, which meant my interaction with other Blacks, family excluded, was non-existent. And so I lived, relatively quietly. As odd as it sounds, race never seemed to matter in Minnesota- I lived so far north that there were just not many people, and those that lived in the area were so spread out, i never really even saw our neighbors, so they may have said racist shit all the time, but like Samuel L. in Pulp Fiction, "I wouldn't know" because I was nowhere around them most of the time. I went to a school where for years, my biggest class size was 5, and I was a pretty bright kid, so I never noticed anything in school either- also, in general, kids are way more awesome about difference than adults- kids have to be taught to hate difference...and this is how I lived until I moved to California...

...it was in California I learned what difference really meant. I'd been at the school for a few weeks, and one of the first things i figured out was that kids in the schools were relatively segregated, the Mexican kids hung out together, the Black kids hung out together, and the White kids all hung out together. This was weird for me, as I'd never even SEEN large groups of ANY of these kinds of kids (i saw lots of Black kids at family reunions and Thanksgiving, but where I lived meant I never just saw a lot of PEOPLE ever doing anything). So not knowing where to go, but being relatively astute to the Politics of the situation, I walk over to the Black kids. One of them says to me "What's up? What's your name?" I tell the kid, and all the kids over there, "I'm Doug. I just moved from Minnesota." The next thing I hear blows my mind and begins the over-arching theme of my existence as a Californian:

"You talk like a white Boy."

They then proceeded to tell me EVERYTHING that was wrong with me: I read too much. I sound white. I work to hard at school. I act white. I'm too smart. The irony of this was that White kids could never seem to get past the fact that I was Black, and it meant I was never accepted in that world either. So I'm in an odd Catch-22: Black kids think I'm too white, and white kids think I'm Black (which by definition, was TOO Black).

I had never had any idea that these things were problematic. I was always taught those were GOOD virtues to have. Reading made you smarter, and it was really really fun. Working hard at school was how you did well in school, and EVERYONE wanted to do well in school, right? Too smart? I didn't even know it was POSSIBLE to be too smart. What does sounding "White" even mean? This was my first introduction to "The Black Check."

I spent the next few years being told by different people I wasn't "black enough." Black girls I wanted to date would call me "an Oreo" to my face. Black boys would openly mock me, the way I talked, the fact that I played Soccer and was on the Debate Team, the classes I was taking (you don't like Black people because you don't take any classes with us- as if I made my class choices- was on a College Prep track and took what they told me to take), you name it: if the Black kids didn't do it and I did, it was proof I didn't want to be Black. This was odd to me for a pretty simple reason: I AM Black. And I LOVE being Black. But even if I HATED being Black- I still would be. It's not a choice. I'd still BE Black, even if I didn't want to be. But that works both ways: you don't get to TELL ME how Black I am. I look in the mirror every. fucking. day. I know I'm Black. I have not figured out why some people believe they can tell you how Black you are, because you do things other Blacks don't do. There are 40 million African Americans in the US, which seems to me to indicate there are 40 million ways to be black.

But at the beginning of this I did mention I fall in a weird middle ground, and I should probably explain that. Anyone that knows me would be sure of a couple of things: 1) i'm a pretty smart guy, and 2) i'm definitively Black. There are A TON of smart black people. But apparently, this is a surprise for many. In the same way I didn't understand WHY Black kids seemed to think that me being me was acting like a white kid, I couldn't get the white kids to understand that there was not much difference between these kids and myself. But pretty much throughout my younger days, I was trapped in between worlds: trying to show Black kids and white kids I had more in common with each of them than either was giving me credit for.

Black kids felt I was too white for them, that I didn't have anything in common with them- they don't think about the idea that, when we're all off campus and in town, that I get harassed and sweated by racist ass cops just as much as anyone else (if you know someone else that has been pulled over 60+ times, been pulled over in 22 states- including Hawaii just last night on some racist ass shit or  been pulled over 3 times on the same street on the same day by the same cop 400 feet from your house, please let me know). People in society that aren't us not only don't make the distinction you make, they don't even see the distinction you make. As I described earlier how I was brought up, my parents were pretty open in telling me that the reason for doing this was not to ensure safety, but to instead tip the scales in my favor against getting fucked with for no reason. I was doing the things I was doing so white people couldn't just do what they felt and use the projection of racism against all Blacks to justify it (the fact that Black parents today have to have that same fucking conversation with parents is mind-numbing and simultaneously depressing as hell).

At the same time, white kids felt I was Black, and thus, TOO Black. Don't get me wrong, I got to be A LOT of white kids "Black friend." Remember all those racist MF's that say "I'm not racist: I have a Black friend?" I was that Black friend- and they lied to you: they were racist. as. fuck. My parents being educated and me talking like I talk meant that White kids felt comfortable bringing me to their homes. And the parents would talk to me on the phone when I called to speak to their kids. So how do I know that these people are uncomfortable around Black people? Because when I arrive at my friends house, I get to see the look on their parents faces: it's the same look I saw on a High School directors face when he met me after recruiting me based on grades, scores, debate results and speaking to him on the phone. It's the same look I saw on homeowner's faces last week when I went house hunting for my wife and I. It's a look of confusion at first, a brain in high process mode and then the final realization that the person they had visualized, the face they had in their mind, was a white face. And people in general, can't hide emotions like surprise, disappointment and fear. I can remember times when I arrived at houses and had parents (what I hope they thought was subtle but in retrospect was probably just pretty much for me to see) start moving valuables out of the rooms I'm going to be in. I had about a half dozen parents call my parents to tell me I had stolen things, only to have me tell them where they hid it when I showed up. There was always a half-hearted apology that happened afterwards, but let's not kid ourselves, that didn't make shit any better.

I talk like I talk- a fan of The Queen's English sometimes, and sometimes I don't. I love reading, writing and debate. I watch documentaries about, really, whatever I can watch them on. I wear crazy socks.

And I'm Black. Deal with it.


  1. I remember those days like it was just yesterday, Doug. I never fully articulated what those experiences were like, never purged the angst and fears that came with it. Thank you for this. Great post.

    The funny thing is, it really doesn't end there. The kids at school are sometimes replaced by co-workers, school parents, principals at my children's schools, etc. It really doesn't end. What has evolved is our healing, self-love, and being comfortable in our own skin, despite it all.